There aren't many places in the world where you can walk down one street, pop into a Polish grocer to wait in line for a smoky kielbasa ring alongside a store full of people that speak little-to-no English, and then continue just a mere couple minutes down the road to grab a banh mi from a place that transports you to Vietnam. There are Asian groceries available for purchase, and a petite, grinning woman mans the cafeteria-style buffet that offers several Vietnamese dishes. The specialty is the banh mi, and the bread is so crackly on the outside and soft on the inside that one woman is buying a stash of four loaves. Again, there's little English being spoken, just a couple points of the finger and the swap of money. Back out on that same road and turning a corner or two, one can pop into a place where everyone seems to be fashioning a thick Irish accent, and they're fighting over the last of the Irish soda bread that is studded with plump raisins and is so moist and flavorful that it's light years beyond the rock hard bread that is usually peddled as soda bread at most grocery stores in March. The list of examples is endless, and that's what makes this neighborhood so terrific. Lucky for us, it's all part of Boston.
Dorchester, or "Dot" as it's sometimes affectionally called, is a section of the city that measures about six square miles. It started as a home to the Puritans, and then the Irish moved in, eventually followed by the Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, African Americans, and the Vietnamese, amongst several groups with other origins. Because of the melting pot of diversity, the dining options are plentiful, and there's no shortage of mom-and-pop types of places where the moms and the pops are from all stretches of the globe and cooking up authentic dishes from their home country. They're not doing it to be flashy or to land real estate on the next cover of Food & Wine; they're cooking because it's what they do. And they do it very well and cook from the heart. You can taste that love in every bite.
There's a real sense of community and a certain tightness that can be felt as one walks the streets. At Singh's Roti, the owner spots those who he thinks are new to his shop or the neighborhood in general. With such warmth and genuine enthusiasm, he immediately hands over a little bite. Declare your love of hot sauce, and his face lights up. "Then you must try my own hot sauce. It's the talk of Dorchester!" He also offers up suggestions on what to order. Just don't make the mistake of assuming that his roti is Indian. "It's Trinidadian", he politely corrects. "See? I got the bread all soft, and the flavors are different than a traditional Indian roti."
It's easy to get enamored with people-watching. One restaurant reveals a gentleman presumably just coming off of a long shift as he sits in peaceful solitude against a neon orange wall. Another restaurant, Eire, tells the story of workers enjoying a pint together at a place that opened as a "Men's Bar" over 50 years ago. Above them, the sign reads "Dorchester Strong" and "God Bless the Richard Family." The sign also lists the daily offerings: a hot dog, ham and cheese, and a corned beef sandwich. It's not served warm, the tie-clad bartender informs in a thick Irish accent. The Celtics game is also listed on the board, which harkens back to a time before cell phones and everyone seeming to already be in the know on everything.
Popping into The Blarney Stone, a place that sounds like it should be a dive bar, one finds the warmth of a fireplace and holiday decorations. Next up, a stop at Tavolo with a couple of drinks. Nuno Alves, the departing executive chef, seems to know everyone's name. He exchanges hugs with almost everyone who walks in the door. "We have a lot of regulars," he explains. "It's a tight community."
Next, a final walk through the city, over to the Lower Mills section. A coffee shop and bakery, Sweet Life, displays its pastries proudly while a couple of diners enjoy a bite. A couple doors down, a new business — Bred Gourmet, which will offer burgers and smoothies — is opening soon in the former Mrs. Jones space. At this point, a pick-me-up is needed, and a coffee at the Sugar Bowl is in order. Sitting in the vintage-hip decor, you're reminded that this part of the city, while steeped in deep-rooted history, is, just like everything else, ever-changing. But even with new businesses moving into Dorchester, balancing the old with the new, there's still the markings of every step of this part of the city's history. That, coupled with the genuineness of people and some standout food, make this neighborhood something special.